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Artist Profile: James Rhee On ‘red helicopter,’ Music, and Kindness

Harvard alumnus James C. Rhee '93 sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss his new book, "red helicopter—a parable for our times."
Harvard alumnus James C. Rhee '93 sat down with The Harvard Crimson to discuss his new book, "red helicopter—a parable for our times." By Courtesy of Kimberly M. Wang and HarperCollins
By Eunice S. Chae, Contributing Writer

James C. Rhee ’93 has experienced quite a few plot twists throughout his life.

A Korean American with two immigrant parents and a public school graduate from Long Island, New York, Rhee graduated from Harvard College and took the route of becoming a high school teacher. In an interview with The Harvard Crimson, Rhee explained that he made this choice partly as a way of embracing risk and learning new skills in an unfamiliar environment.

“Sometimes that achievement of going to Harvard — which is awesome — it’s sometimes really debilitating and constraining,” Rhee said.

“The fact that you went to Harvard — where do I go from here? It’s prestigious, right? It’s quote, ‘brand recognition.’ It makes you risk averse. That you don’t want to do things that are not, quote, ‘prestigious,’ that take you into beginner status.”

After teaching for two years, Rhee went on to attend Harvard Law School but never practiced law. Instead, he worked at an investment bank on Wall Street before deciding to leave abruptly after the firm laid off a close friend.

Rhee would soon find himself in another unorthodox situation: as a Korean-American man heading Ashley Stewart, a floundering clothing company whose main target demographic was plus-size Black women. Through what he calls a strategy of kindness and a little math, Rhee and his team were ultimately able to rescue Ashley Stewart from almost-certain liquidation.

Rhee’s first book, “red helicopter—a parable for our times: lead change with kindness (plus a little math)” captures every detail of this life journey — from painful to joyful and everything in between.

The title comes from what Rhee calls a red helicopter story: a particular story that sticks with its owner for oftentimes elusive reasons. He experienced his own red helicopter story at a young age, when he received a gift of a toy red helicopter in a moment of profound kindness. But Rhee says that above all else, he wants the phrase to serve as a connective metaphor.

“I want everyone to have their own red helicopter story. For me, it was literally a red helicopter. For you, it could be just something else,” Rhee said.

Rhee credits his experience as the son of immigrants and his instincts with his successes. This experience includes moments like watching his mother shed her vulnerability the moment she stepped into a Korean grocery store, where her lack of English didn’t matter a bit. His instincts would later tell him that Ashley Stewart was to its customers what the Korean grocery was to his mother, and gave him an intuitive sense of how to guide and restructure the company.

Still, Rhee knows it can be hard to trust one’s instincts and perception — “nunchi,”as the Korean word for it goes. But he says what kept him going was the understanding of what principles he valued.

“I’m very honest about those thoughts in the book, where I’m like, ‘What am I doing?’” Rhee said. “I just didn't feel like I could look at myself in the mirror if I didn't see this through.”

“And so even if it failed, which it was supposed to, I knew that it was in keeping with who I was, that I was this person that would do this. So that’s number one, that story. It’s a north star,” Rhee continued.

It’s a philosophy that goes hand in hand with Rhee’s other core values: kindness and grace. He recounts some of the harsher realities of growing up and watching how his immigrant parents were treated by others — sometimes facing blatant racism. But Rhee says practicing kindness can be a way to not only learn forgiveness and alleviate that emotional pain, but change it for the better.

“It's just this duality of existence,” Rhee said. “You eliminate extremes, there's no toxic optimism, you realize that your life is not going to be linear, you realize that you will have periods of time when you're not particularly happy, or thrilled.”

“A lot of this book is about a journey of just accepting reality the way it is,” Rhee added. “But not accepting the bad parts and just saying, ‘I'm not going to do anything about it.’ It's being realistic, and then saying, ‘perhaps I can do something to make the bad parts a little better.’”

Rhee also described the heavy musical influence on his life and subsequently his book — during the interview, he sat with a guitar perched on his lap that he occasionally plucked at.

“The whole book is structured as a piece of music,” Rhee said. “And the acknowledgements I write, it’s a fugue in E flat major.”

If Rhee were to condense his life into what he called a “three minute movie,” he says he hopes it would be just like a fleshed-out musical piece — full and dynamic.

“I think about it, what's the tone? Who’s in it? So that’s number one,” Rhee said. “It may sound morbid to you. But it's not meant to be morbid. It's just, I'm gonna die one day. And I want the three minute movie of my life to be something that my children would be very proud of playing at my funeral.”

“You don’t want to have a life story that’s one tempo, one note, one pitch, one instrument. It’d be boring,” Rhee continued. “I don’t ever want to retire. I don’t view the things I’m doing as work. I want to sort of die at the peak of the crescendo — when it’s just about to hit, and then done. Like boom. It’s over. And then one final, like —”

Rhee paused to emphasize his words with a loud strum on his guitar.

“— and I’m out!”

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